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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

It's a Small World

Unlike in the NBA, you don't have to be tall to dominate during the NCAA tournament

March 16, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

"Where's Larry Bird at?

"Where's he at?"

The kid was so cute.

Bird stood in a dark Staples Center corridor. He was in town on Indiana Pacers' business, scouting the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, not granting press interviews and only begrudgingly scratching out his signature.

Gee whiz, though, this scene was playing out like Mean Joe Greene and that pipsqueak in the famous soft drink commercial.

The tyke approached Bird for an autograph.

"Got it," the kid beamed to his friends.

In fact, next to beating UCLA earlier that evening with his jackrabbit hops and dribble penetration, getting Bird to put pen to parchment might have been the highlight of the young man's day.

The autograph seeker, jeered by opposing crowds this year with taunts of "Gary Coleman! Gary Coleman!" was Washington sophomore guard Nate Robinson, who looks young enough to be your paperboy and stands 5 feet 9, maybe, in his cowboy boots.

Being vertically challenged has not stopped the box-shaped Robinson -- Nate the Crate? -- from becoming a driving force in college basketball.

In case you haven't noticed, the Lilliputians are taking over.

Kids not tall enough to get on Disneyland rides three years ago are now the difference makers in a sport where, oxymoronically, the players keep getting taller even as the peach basket remains tacked at 10 feet.

If you need a movie theme for this year's NCAA tournament, which begins Thursday in arenas across America, it might be "Get Shorty."

Thirty writers who regularly cover Pac-10 basketball were recently asked in a newspaper survey which conference player they would pay to watch.

Nate Robinson won in a landslide.

At the Pac-10 Tournament, Robinson ran Keystone Kop circles around opposing guards in leading Washington to the finals run it needed to lock up an NCAA bid -- the Huskies open tournament play Friday, against Alabama Birmingham, at Columbus, Ohio.

"I just try to be like a little fly," Robinson said after his first-round matchup with 6-6 UCLA guard Cedric Bozeman. "Guys don't like little things that just keep bothering them. I just try to get under his skin."

After Robinson had scored 20 points against Arizona in the tournament semis, 6-11 Wildcat center Channing Frye muttered, "That guy is kind of feisty."

Pete Newell, the legendary basketball coach and mind who runs the annual Big Man Camp in Hawaii, came away from the Pac-10 tourney infatuated with the tiniest guy on the court.

"I was amazed," Newell said of Robinson.

Robinson leads a long list of 6-foot-and-under stars leading their teams into this NCAA tournament:

* Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's (the probable national player of the year).

* Raymond Felton, North Carolina (He of "Everybody Loves Raymond" T-shirt fame).

* Tim Smith, East Tennessee State (Better watch out, Cincinnati).

* John Lucas III, Oklahoma State.

* Andre Barrett, Seton Hall (A little guy who made first team in the Big East).

* Dee Brown, Illinois (Nickname is "the Human Fastbreak").

* Will Bynum, Georgia Tech.

* Mo Finley, Alabama Birmingham (He faces off against Robinson in first-round NCAA action).

* Chris Paul, Wake Forest.

Last year, three of the 10 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award -- T.J. Ford of Texas, Brandin Knight of Pittsburgh, and Jason Gardner of Arizona -- were short guys.

Ford won the Wooden Award, and Nelson of Saint Joseph's is favored to win it this year.

St. Peter's College did not make this year's NCAA field, but its 5-8 sophomore guard, Keydren Clark, became the first 6-foot-and-under player to lead the nation in scoring since Kevin Houston of Army in 1987.

Short guys have always had a place in college basketball; Calvin Murphy of Niagara and Monte Towe of North Carolina State come to mind.

One of the most memorable moments in NCAA tournament history occurred in 1995 when UCLA half-pint Tyus Edney went baseline to baseline to beat Missouri on a last-second shot.

Newell's University of San Francisco squad, which won the National Invitation Tournament in 1949, was led by 5-9 guard Rene Herrerias.

However, the emergence of the small guy in the modern game is nothing short of a renaissance.

"The small guy has always been over-judged, I thought, on his weaknesses," Newell said. "But what he brings to a team totally is far more positive than the negatives he brings."

Newell says it is not coincidence that small players are having a bigger effect on today's game.

The best big men are fleeing for the NBA in droves. Some, like LeBron James, are going straight from high school to the professionals.

"The little guys don't go out early," Newell said. "Right or wrong, the NBA doesn't put that much attention to them. They feel it's a lot easier to get small guys than big guys. And it's true."

Tony Bennett, a Washington State assistant coach and a former short-stuff star, says early defections have changed the game.

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